Baroness Defends Secularism in the UK’s House of Lords

It’s been a pretty hectic couple of weeks in the crazy non-stop world of the Church of England!

Normally this dusty old institution just plods along, not really drawing attention to themselves, other than the coffee mornings or the parish summer fête. These last few weeks, though, all hell has broken loose. 

First, seemingly out of nowhere, there was the announcement of Justin Portal Welby as the new Bishop of Canterbury.

Second, we had the convoluted, bizarre, ritualistic voting system that ultimately returned a “No” vote on the issue of whether to allow women to be Bishops.

Finally, on Thursday, there was a debate in the House of Lords brought by Baroness Falkner of Margravine on the importance of a secular space in public life.

The choice of Welby as the man to replace the outgoing Rowan “Dumbledore” Williams was something of a surprise. It’s not that he isn’t capable or experienced enough; it’s just that he was hardly considered to be a favorite. Christopher Cocksworth, Graham James, and John Sentamu all had better odds. (I’m sure most of you don’t care about the details of the betting odds, but I think there is something wonderfully heathen about gambling on religious and church votes!) Anyway, they could have picked Justin Bieber and no one this side of the pond would care. Welby is inheriting a church that is entirely irrelevant in modern British life.

Justin Welby watches as a pro-Female Bishop supporter hugs Dumbledore after the voting result (Via ITV)

As for the the issue of women Bishops and the vote which reaffirmed their opposition to the idea… My own opinion on the matter is basically identical to Claudia‘s. The result has generally been greeted with shock; most people expected the vote to be a “Yes.” Most politicians are unhappy at the result and plans are already afoot to press the Archbishop of Canterbury into changing the rules when he comes into power next year to allow a new vote before 2015, which is when current rules first allow it to occur. After the result, the church has been described as “out of touch” and “blatantly discriminatory.” Even Welby described it as “a very grim day” for the church. I don’t really understand the shock; it’s a church — being out of touch and discriminatory is their basic function.

Back in July, the Rev. Dr. Patrick Richmond revealed his worries that the church will cease to have any meaning or possibly even exist in 20 years if it cannot muster a serious recruitment drive. The average age of its congregation now stands at 61; it’s over 65 in more rural parishes. Once this generation has died, there is unlikely to be anyone to replace them. Adult attendance has halved in the last 40 years and childhood attendance has seen an incredible decrease of 80%. So, like I said, irrelevant.

All this press coverage has put the Church back in the spotlight for a little while, so much so that the role it should play in the political and public space has been subject to a debate in the House of Lords.

The House of Lords is a slightly odd institution; I guess it is the equivalent of the U.S. Senate. It is made up of 240 elected members, 60 appointed members, and 12 Bishops from the Church of England. Elected members serve single, non-renewable 15 years terms. It is this mix that leads to some of the most amazing political put downs, all with thoroughly British politeness and wit. The steady increase in society giving up its religious affiliations is beginning to permeate even the House of Lords. 

Here’s Baroness Falkner:

In a society in which church attendance continues to dwindle and congregations age — I am sure there are anecdotal exceptions, but the statistics are very clear — we rapidly approach a time when we need to think about the extent to which religious precepts should be allowed, often through the workings of both Houses, to override the view of the people on sensitive social issues. When I say “the view of the people”, I mean even religious people.

Most of the Lords still retain their religious leanings, but Baroness Falkner represents a small but important crack in the quest for reform, including the removal of the 12 Bishops from the House as a matter of rite. The arch-nemesis of anyone who values secularism, atheism, or even anything other than organised religion — Baroness Warsi — revealed just how out of touch she is on this issue.

Winding up the debate, she stressed the importance the government places in religion, pointing out the vast amounts of money spent on various interfaith projects, as well as reaffirming the government’s mission to maintain the status of religious education as a compulsory subject that all pupils must study and to the provision of collective worship in schools.

Baroness Warsi (via The Guardian)

Warsi is from the school of religious proponents and can’t grasp how people could possibly lead ethical lives without an imaginary dictator to keep them in check. She doesn’t really care what your faith is — so long as you have one. Her leading role in pressing for religious education to be made compulsory serves to highlight the different battles being fought in the U.S. and the U.K. In the U.S., every instance of government endorsement of religion (of which there are many) is fought against to preserve the First Amendment. In the U.K., we’d just settle for not having the government mandate religious education and collective worship for every child in the land regardless of their faith (or, crucially, their lack of it). That kind of reform will need approval from the House of Lords and the comments made by Baroness Falkner are a long overdue step towards that end.

On a side note, Hemant previously posted about the New Humanist’s annual Bad Faith Awards. While the votes seem to be accumulating for Todd Akin, Baroness Warsi is also on the ballot. The poll closes on Monday so you’ve got the weekend to affect the outcome!

(Thanks to Carl for the link!)

About Mark Turner

Mark Turner was born and raised as a Catholic in the North East of England, UK. He attended two Catholic schools between the ages of five and sixteen. A product of a moderate Catholic upbringing and an early passion for science first resulted in religious apathy and by mid-teens outright disbelief.


  • Guest

    I pre-emptively apologise if the rather draining infection I have at present is precluding me from reading this piece properly but I believe there’s an error with regards to the claimed composition of the House of Lords. Specifically, I was under the impression that it consists of nearly eight hundred peers that obtained their title via inheritance, appointment, or via an ecclesiastical position. If my memory is accurate then the belief that it consists of “240 elected members, 60 appointed members, and 12 Bishops” is derived from draft reforms proposed in 2011 that were not successful and are unlikely to be successful in the foreseeable future. Once again, I apologise if I’m simply misreading.

  • Erp

    Actually an earlier reform dropped the hereditary peers to an elected subset (elected by the hereditary peers as a whole).    The vast majority remaining are life peers (politicians kicked upstairs or eminent people from other fields including a few scientists) plus 26 bishops sitting by right of being bishops (at least a couple of other now retired bishops are there as life peers).   The entire debate can be found online (Parliament is pretty good about putting up the debates quickly).     Lords committees can do serious work and have people who know the matter.  For instance the Science and Technology Committee is chaired by John Krebs, zoologist and Royal Society member (it also includes a former president of the Royal Society, Lord Rees, and a former president of the Royal Academy of Engineers, Lord Broers).

    Also a percentage of those still attending CoE services in the younger generation are doing so to guarantee a place for their children in a state supported CoE school rather than having them sent to a worse school or one further away. 

  • Mark Edon

    The compulsory RE here in the UK is what you would call comparative religious studies in the US and does not / should take the form of religious instruction / indoctrination.  As an atheist I am all in favour of this.  This is currently taught from a locally agreed syllabus written at LEA level with input from a Standing Advisory Council on RE made of members of the various local faiths – I am a member of the Leeds City Council one as the Humanist representative.  

    New forms of schools, academies and free schools don’t have to both with the locally agreed syllabus so the protection of this comparative religious studies is weakening/disappearing.

    The national organisation of SACREs recently issued advice that the requirement for compulsory daily “worship” which is widely ignored should be removed. 

    Academies and free schools allow for the fragmentation of the UK education system into smaller shards than even the US system but with no protection of the first amendment and with a Government seemingly intent on handing more of the UK education budget to faith schools that are no longer under the control of LEA’s, local parent governors or with any kind of local oversight .  These schools can also hire non qualified teachers and can set whatever pay and conditions they wish.

    Personally this seems to be a ideology that reveres the market being foistered on our childrens future with no evidence that it will improve standards and with all of the current quality control mechanisms being dismantled.

    So far three of these schools have been identified as being set up by creationist groups although they are make various half hearted denials or evade the issue in some abiguous form.  More details here :

  • Raising_Rlyeh

    I have have always wondered what is the point of the church of England  With the declining religiosity in the UK and the rest of Europe is a state church, even one with some historical significance, needed? I see no reason in keeping the institution around, but then again I’m not British. 

  • Raising_Rlyeh

    So basically it sounds like some people are still embracing the really bad ideas of Reagan and Thatcher when it comes to schools. 

  • m6wg4bxw

    “Baroness Defends Secularism in the UK’s House of Lords”

    …not the sludge metal band, Baroness. I feel dumb.

  • Christopher Check

    Meanwhile, the highest bishop in the American Episcopal Church is herself a woman.

    They somehow manage to be more progressive than their British parent-organization even in America.

  • Pcranny

    “Guest” is quite correct, there are NO elected members of the House of Lords, most of them are appointed as Life Peers, having previously been politicians or otherwise part of “the great and the good.”
    There are still 92 peers whose title was inherited, and the Lords Spiritual – 26 men who are there solely because of their position in The Church of England.
    There have been many attempts at reform of the House of Lords dating back at least 100 years, but strangely, whenever some real reforms have been proposed  (as shown above by Guest) there has been some political exigency which has prevented it from happening.
    To further illustrate how crazy we Brits are – take a look at 10 pound note.
    On one side is a picture of Her Majesty The Queen (also Supreme Governor of the Church of England) and on the other side a picture of one of our great national heroes Charles Darwin.

  • ortcutt

    What bothers me about comparative religion is that questions of the truth of religious doctrines are scrupulously avoided.  How can something claim to be the scholarly study of religion that puts up barriers as to which questions can be asked and which cannot.  Sociological questions can be asked.  Questions regarding what the doctrines are can be asked, but questrions regarding whether those doctrines are actually true cannot be asked.  That’s education?

  • Erp

    Inoculation.  A mild dose of religion raises the immune system so more virulent forms don’t take.  Unfortunately this works somewhat like the original inoculation which was done with live smallpox from apparently mild cases and sometimes killed the recipient (Jenner discovered later that cowpox worked as well but with a much lower lethal or disfiguring side effect rate).

    (the above is half tongue in cheek)

  • Pureone

    Om, that brought some Sunn 0))) into my day.

  • Bryan

     My thoughts exactly. “Baroness just got more bad-ass! Wait…”